I have been thinking on your question for awhile now. It is an interesting question, as I have not come across this phrase “open heavens” in the past. I really appreciate all of the comments that have been made and the resources that have been shared.
I pulled out my concordance and my Bible and so far have only found 8 instances in which this type of wording has been used in scripture. Here are the passages that I found:
Ezekiel 1:1, Matthew 3:16, Mark 1:10, Luke 3:21, John 1:51, Acts 7:56, Acts 10:11, and Revelation 19:11.
As is always the case, if we want to understand a passage or phrase accurately, we need to look at it in context. What is surrounding that particular verse or phrase.
In Ezekiel 1 we find the prophet Ezekiel among the exiles of Judah. He is beside the river Chebar in the land of Judah’s captivity, Babylon. Ezekiel 1:1 tells us that when the heavens were opened Ezekiel saw visions of God. If one is curious about what the vision entails, one would need to read the entire book of Ezekiel (a fascinating read). But the vision he sees is first off of God. Verses 26-28 tell us,
Now above the expanse that was over their heads there was something resembling a throne, like lapis lazuli in appearance; and on that which resembled a throne, high up, was a figure with the appearance of a man. Then I noticed from the appearance of His loins and upward something like glowing metal that looked like fire all around within it, and from the appearance of His loins and downward I saw something like fire; and there was a radiance around Him. As the appearance of the rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the appearance of the surrounding radiance. Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. And when I saw it, I fell on my face and hear a voice speaking.
If we are curious about who this person is, we can turn to Revelation and find a similar description in Revelation 1:12-16,
Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking with me. And having turned I saw seven golden lampstands; and in the middle of the lampstands I saw one like a son of man, clothed in a robe reaching to the feet, and girded across His chest with a golden sash. His head and His hair were white like white wool, like snow; and His eyes were like a flame of fire. His feet were like burnished bronze, when it has been made to glow in a furnace, and His voice was like the sound of many waters. In His right hand He held seven stars, and out of His mouth came a sharp two-edged sword; and His face was like the sun shining in its strength.
It is interesting that both Ezekiel and John have the same response when they find themselves in the presence of this One.
And when I saw, I fell on my face…
When I saw Him, I fell at His feet like a dead man
This One then goes on to identify Himself in Revelation 1: 17-18,
And He placed His right hand on me, saying, "Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades.
So Ezekiel is literally seeing visions of God Himself!
The next three passages that speak of an “open heaven” are recorded in the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. These passages are all referring to the accounts of the baptism of Jesus.
After being baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove and lighting on Him, and behold, a voice out of the heavens said, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.”
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Immediately coming up out of the water, He saw the heavens opening, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon Him; and a voice came out of the heavens: “You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased.”
Now when all the people were baptized, Jesus was also baptized, and while He was praying, heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in bodily form like a dove, and a voice came out of heaven, “You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased.”
Now, the next instance of this type of phrasing is used by the Apostle John in his gospel. To fully understand the context in would be appropriate to read John 1:28-51. At the end of this rather lengthy passage, Jesus makes this statement about Himself,
And He said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
As you indicated, Alison, this refers back to Jacob’s dream in Genesis 28:10-22, where he sees a ladder that is set on the earth with its top reaching to heaven and the angels of God ascending and descending on it. Jesus in effect is saying in John 1:51 that He is that ladder that bridges man to God.
Acts 7:56 falls within the greater narrative of Acts 6:7-7:60, where Stephen is giving a defense of Jesus as the Messiah of Israel and he is martyred for his profession. As he is being stoned to death he has the following experience as related in Acts 7:55-56,
But being full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
Acts 10:1-48 is the context for the next passage where we see this phrase used. The narrative tells us of the occasion where Peter is called through a vision to take the good news of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles. I encourage you to read the entire chapter in order to get the full picture. Peter is seeing a vision when the sky is opened up, that reinforces the message that God is giving him to take the gospel to the Gentiles. This passage is perhaps the one that least fits with the other passages we see that employ this type of phrasing regarding an “open heaven”. But I think the same idea is here in essence, that of Jesus Christ descending to be the propitiation for mankind, for the Gentiles as well as the Jews.
The final passage that I found that speaks of an “open heaven” is Revelation 19:11-16,
And I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse, and He who sat on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and wages war. His eyes are a flame of fire, and on His head are many diadems; and He has a name written on Him which no one knows except Himself. He is clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God. And the armies which are in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, were following Him on white horses. From His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may strike down the nations, and He will rule them with a rod of iron; and He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty. And on His robe and on His thigh He has a name written, “KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS.”
So what do we glean from the passages that mention an “open heaven”? I think it is exactly what Renzo referred to when he said,
For this reason, I think the passage in John 1:51 is significant. Jesus is the ladder, the bridge, the reconciliation between heaven and earth, between the Father and mankind. We need no other “portal” than the one given to us in the person of Jesus Christ. I love Hebrews 1:1-14. The first four verses are especially powerful, but I would encourage a read of the entire chapter!
God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power. When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much better than the angels, as He has inherited a more excellent name than they.
What a magnificent Lord we serve!